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A note from tkayo

in which the stage is set and ripples spread

III

“You did what?!”

Remy glanced over at Orae, confused. “Uh, I let Zarah go? Did you not hear me, or-”

“I heard you,” Orae spat. “I’m just having a bit of trouble comprehending why you’d do something so stupid.”

Didn’t you call me dumb earlier? “I don’t see what the big deal is, Orae. She’s just like, shy! And also probably traumatised maybe, but like, get in line, right!”

The wind whistled past them.

“…okay,” Remy admitted, “that was better in my head. Still though! You were kinda being a dick to her. Slash in general.”

“I was not-” Orae bit back the rest of the sentence. “That is a misrepresentation.”

Their dog made a chuffing noise, and Remy looked down to see it looking up at him, tongue lolling out to one side. If Remy didn’t know better, he’d almost think it could understand them.

Wait. He didn’t know better. “Can your dog understand us?”

Orae blinked at the sudden change in topic. “I… well, yes. Somewhat.”

The dog barked. Remy didn’t know much about dogs, but it seemed fairly happy.

“Luce,” Orae hissed.

Luce barked again, louder.

“How dare you.”

Remy reached down and scratched the dog behind the ear. “I don’t know what you’re saying,” he said with a grin, “but I endorse it.”

“Shut- both of you, just shut up.”

Luce barked again, and Remy imitated it, grinning up at Orae. “How was my pronunciation?” he asked.

“Terrible,” Orae said, contradicting Luce’s satisfied whuff. “You traitor,” they added, addressing the dog.

A muggy groan from off to the side interrupted them, and Remy quickly stood, striding over to where the detective lady was beginning to come around to consciousness.

“Is she alive?” Orae asked as he bent down and checked her pulse. They didn’t seem particularly concerned, which Remy thought was a bit cold. It was only a few gunshot wounds, jeez.

“Oh, yeah, she’s fine,” he confirmed, feeling the steady beat under his finger. “It was-”

Remy was actually very impressed with the detective lady’s persistence. Her head whipped forward to smack into his, and her free hand shot forward and up with a glint of metal. Presumably, the intended execution would have involved stunning him for long enough for her to go to work with the knife she’d stabbed into his gut. Quick, efficient, and brutal.

Remy liked her already.

“Darn,” he said, as she reeled backwards in pain, “I like your moxie!” She glanced down, and her eyes widened as she realised the knife had utterly failed to even scratch him. “The results might not be good, but A+ for effort!”

“Honestly,” Orae remarked, “why exactly did you expect that to work where a gun hadn’t?”

The detective looked up, eyes filled with anger and fear. “What are you?” she hissed shakily.

Remy frowned. “That’s not very nice. I thought this was a progressive country.”

“Why on earth would you think that?” Orae asked dryly.

Guster mostly just looked confused.

Well,” Remy huffed, “for future reference, referring to a person as a what is dehumanising and rude, especially if they’re trans.”

The woman blinked. “…I wasn’t talking about that,” she said slowly. “I was talking about the fact that you’re an invincible corpse.”

“She’s got you there,” Orae said.

“Oh,” Remy said. “Well, then. That’s calcified.”

“Classified.”

“That’s classified.

“Just kill me already,” Guster spat.

“Amen,” Orae muttered.

Remy thought for a second. Zarah hadn’t seen particularly bothered by the idea of killing her, but she had also said that alive was better. Remy Auclair was many things, but above all else he was someone who would never make a decision when he had the option of not doing that.

“Nah,” he said casually, and Guster’s eyes widened in shock. “Anyway, see you round!”

“Wh-” the woman spluttered, as he stood back up and ambled away. “Hey! You can’t just- you’ve assaulted a representative of the Ostran government!”

“Has he?” Orae said. “Who?”

“Uh,” Remy said, “her? I thought that was obvious. Wait, was it someone else?”

“…it was a joke, Remy,” Orae sighed.

“Ohhhh. I don’t get it.”

“I’d gathered, yes.”

Guster made a sound somewhere between a snort and a scream. “You’re both insane, aren’t you?”

Remy grinned. “Sane, insane; I’m the guy with the gun.”

“You don’t have a gun.”

“Oh yeah?” He flexed.

“That was pathetic,” Orae said flatly.

“Oh good,” Guster said. “I thought I was going to die of dehydration, but turns out listening to you is going to do it first.”

Remy snapped his fingers. “Oh! I knew I was forgetting something! Ugh, I always forget humans need to eat and drink and stuff.”

“You don’t?!” Guster demanded.

“I’m sorry,” Orae said icily, “‘humans’?”

“Ooh, right. Word doesn’t translate, uh- normal? People? I’m not an alien.”

“You don’t need to eat?!

“Look,” Remy said, “‘need’ is a very complicated word.”

Orae cut him off with a sharp hand gesture and a hst noise. “Leaving her here like this is as good as killing her, just more painfully.”

“Oh.” Remy frowned. “Guess we’re killing her after all, then.”

He stepped towards her, but Orae made a noise like they were choking and put themself between him and Guster. “Just-! Just wait, alright? Ma’am, do you have a phone?”

Remy flinched a little, before realising they were talking to Guster, not him. “…why?” she replied slowly.

Orae sighed. “Do you want me to let him kill you?”

“…left pocket.”

Orae raised an eyebrow at Remy, and he shrugged. Might as well see where this is going. They retrieved the phone, then stood back up and held out their other hand, brow furrowing in concentration.

Their corona flared, blacklight casting the rooftop in strange, ethereal shadows, and very, very slowly, a flat plane of red ghostlight began to form. Remy thought it was a bit weird, considering how quickly they’d brought out their dog’s armour, but he wasn’t an expert, and also didn’t really care.

Once it was a square, roughly five by five inches, they placed the phone on top, then turned it into a sealed box with the phone still inside.

“Here,” they said, dropping it in Guster’s lap. “That will last about half an hour. Don’t bother trying to break it, you’ll just hurt yourself.”

She looked down at it, then back up at them, expression unreadable. “You won’t-”

Enough,” Orae snapped, cutting her off. “It should be exceedingly clear by this point that you are in vastly over your head. Tell whoever holds your leash that they’ll be better off if they mind their own business, and be grateful you’re sending a message in person rather than as a corpse.”

Guster blanched, and Remy could feel the slightest bit of pressure coming off of Orae. Huh, maybe they’re not so weak after all.

Apparently satisfied, Orae turned and began to walk away, whistling for Luce to join them. Remy waved goodbye to Guster, who was already trying to crack open the box on the ground, and jogged to catch up with them.

“Very cool,” he said approvingly.

Orae flinched, then glared at him. “What are you doing?”

“Uh, walking? And talking, I guess. Oh, and breathing- no, wait, hold on,” and he started breathing again, “okay, now I’m breathing.

Why are you following me?

Remy laughed as they reached the fire escape. “I’m not! We’re just, you know, walking together! Like buds!”

“‘Buds’?”

“Yeah, uh… friends? Pals? Compadres? Amis?”

“I know. What. The word. Means. We are not pals.”

Remy patted them on the shoulder lightly. “Not yet! But I’m sure once we’ve gotten to know each other a little better we’ll get there!”

They were silent most of the rest of the way down the stairs. “…you’re not going to leave me alone, are you?”

“Nope!” Remy confirmed cheerily. “You go first.”

Orae sighed. “…how much do you know about Brecht?”


II

Kihri was this fucking close to absolutely losing her shit.

If you’d asked her any other day, she’d have said being a ghost wasn’t that bad. Sure, it couldn’t hold a candle to being alive, but it was still a lot better than being dead. Unless there was some eternal paradise or some bullshit, in which case she was already fucked, cause ten-year-old Kihri might’ve made it in but eighteen-year-old Kihri was gonna start stocking up on sunscreen, euphemistically speaking.

Sure, she couldn’t interact with anyone except her sister, couldn’t touch anything, couldn’t eat or drink or shit or jerk off or any of the million other disgusting biological processes that no-one ever thought they’d miss but she really fucking did

Well, maybe it did kind of suck. But she was conscious, and she told herself that that was all that mattered.

Ordinarily, anyway. Today, though, her sister was making her crave the sweet embrace of the void.

“Zarah. Zarah. Zarah. Zarah. Zaaaaa-rahhhh. Za-rah. Za-rah. Razah. Sarah. Zarah. Zarah.” Okay, maybe there was one benefit to being a ghost – her throat never got tired. “Zoorah. Zazah. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzarah. Zrhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. Zarah. Zarah.”

Kihri had been going at it for close to an hour now, and she had to admit, she was a little impressed with her sister’s complete lack of response. Normally, the cold shoulder only lasted fifteen minutes of pestering, thirty at an absolute maximum. Under any other circumstances she’d think, yay, Zarah was learning how to actually play the game of Semi-Real Sibling Annoyance, but in the current context, it just made things even more worrying.

And they’d been a fucking nerve-wracker to begin with.

“What,” Zarah finally snapped, after five straight minutes of an extended ‘aaa’ sound after the first ‘z’. She still had what Kihri mentally categorised as ‘voicemail voice’; as in, ‘Zarah isn’t here right now, please leave a message’. It wasn’t that surprising, or even her fault, but with everything else that was going on Kihri was seriously worried.

It’d been years since she’d last done the thumb thing – even longer since the… other stuff- and Kihri had genuinely thought it wasn’t something they had to worry about anymore.

Serves me fucking right, honestly. Should’ve known better, Kihri! Seems the universe got lazy and started reusing ways to make you miserable instead of coming up with new and exciting ones.

“Chicken butt,” Kihri replied instinctually. “Wait, shit, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to say that please don’t go back to ignoring me.”

Zarah was silent for a worryingly long time, but finally pulled her phone out from her pocket and held it to her ear and Kihri let out an airless breath of relief.

A premature one, as it turned out. “Remy,” Zarah said curtly. “His… what he did. You felt it too?”

Kihri suppressed a sigh. At least she was talking now. “Yeah, I did. Don’t think it was as strong as it was for y’all though – kinda just felt like someone had thrown a really heavy blanket over my… everything.”

“Mm. More like being at the bottom of the ocean, for me. And yes, before you say, I know not what that actually is, I am just guessing.”

Kihri actually hadn’t been about to comment on it, but there was no way to say that without sounding petulant. Which wouldn’t have stopped her normally, but see previous, vis a vis the situation and its relative normality. “Like an… overwhelming force, pressing down?”

“More…” Zarah idly popped the joints in one hand, the way she didn’t realise she did when she was thinking. “Like… when your heart goes dry, but everywhere?”

Kihri mentally ran the idiom through her Zarah translator. “So less pushing down and more pushing… in?” She tilted her head. “Pushing inwards.”

“Ah. Yes, that.” Zarah made a gesture with her hands, like holding an invisible ball. “All around. Did it spark any memories?”

Yes. “No.”

Thankfully, Zarah’d never been able to read her anyway. “Ah. Shame. It did not… he was not the same, as the others.”

Scintillating observation, sis. “Yeah, no kidding. Kinda cute though, right?” Come on, snipe at Kihri, ha ha, isn’t it funny how annoying she is?

“No,” Zarah said. “I think he is dead.”

Well, I tried. “Mm, pretty sure he was still walking around! Unless you mean like me, in which case he still managed to beat you like the red-headed stepchild, and if I could do that this relationship would be very different.”

“He caught me off-guard. Not happening again.”

“Oh, yeah, cause your pride is the most important thing here.” Kihri did a quick spin in the air as she sighed, using it to check their surroundings. “Wait, why the fuck are we here?”

‘Here’, in this case, meant the small immigrant district sometimes called Little Jia, as well as other, much shittier names. It was mostly folks from up north-ish, displaced by some neverending war or another in the Verde, and the other names cause… well, people were garbage, shocking.

The food was great, but Zarah wasn’t really a person who ate for quality so much as raw nutrients, though, so Kihri was at a loss for why she’d brought them there, unless-

“Oh, shit on a saint,” Kihri said. “You’re going to Missa, aren’t you.”

Zarah didn’t bother looking up at her. “And?”

Kihri pushed down the voices that told her to kill and pressed her fingers to her temples. She couldn’t feel anything obviously, but it helped by association. “And maybe I’m a little bit worried about you doing- this, when you’re so clearly in a bad place mentally right now.”

The fact that Zarah didn’t even bother denying it was how Kihri knew it was really bad. “I appreciate the concern,” she said, sounding anything but appreciative. “I will be fine.”

“Oh my gosh!” Kihri said theatrically. “You figured out a new trick with the blacklight?”

“…no?”

“But how else do you explain you just saying something and it coming true?! Oh, wait. You can’t.”

“Charming.”

“Zarah!” Kihri snapped. “You can’t just- you self-harmed again! You just had the literal definition of a relapse and I get that it’s hard for you but pushing it down and pretending it didn’t happen is only going to make things worse!”

“I. Am. Fine.”

“Great! Just fucking peachy! Except, wait, no, you still can’t magically make that true!” Zarah scoffed dismissively, which turned about to be the final straw for Kihri.

“Alright,” she snapped. “You know what? Fine. Get yourself killed, slash your wrists open, burn yourself, I don’t care anymore. I tried to be nice, I tried to give a shit, but clearly you’ve got your heart set on self-destructing, so who am I to stop you!”

Judging by the way Zarah flinched, it seemed she’d finally gotten through to her, but Kihri was too worked up to stop now.

“It’s your fucking life, and you’ve got every fucking right under the stars to throw it away! But you know what you don’t have the right to? Me, asshole. You know, your fucking sister, who’s fucking tied to you through some mystic magic bullshit? Or have you forgotten about that already?!”

“Kihri, that-”

“So fuck you,” Kihri barrelled on over her. “Fuck you and your self-pitying self-harming bullshit. You can do whatever you like to your life but you don’t get to do shit to mine. Zarah Karuni Vyas, if you self-destruct and take me down with you I swear on every single shining star in the fucking firmament that I will find some way to make you pay for it.” Kihri was right up in her face now, refusing to back down from the eye contact. “Are we saints-damned fucking clear?!”

Zarah broke first. “…yes.”

“Good.”

Kihri didn’t like acting like that. In fact, she fucking hated it. She hated the way it made her felt, she hated how it made Zarah feel, she hated that it was the only way she’d found to pull Zarah back from certain brinks.

But most of all, Kihri hated that she was the one who had to do it.

Parents. Guardians. Fucking- schoolteachers, even.

Every single other person in their life had abandoned them, which, you know, sucked. And wasn’t Zarah’s fault, even though she liked to blame herself for it (she liked to blame herself for everything except the stuff that actually was her fault), but it left Kihri as literally the only responsible person in her life. Which, fine, whatever. She’d be the helpful fucking angel on her shoulder, she’d make sure to keep her ticking along because keeping her sister alive meant keeping herself alive, and keeping her okay meant that her one source of conversation and human contact wasn’t a broken wreck of a person. And also because she was her sister and she loved her and all that gay shit or whatever, but anyway.

The problem was that when literally any new opportunity for contact come into their lives, Zarah pushed them away. It was one thing for Kihri to have to fill that role when there was no alternative, but to have others appear and be rejected… She didn’t know if Zarah was doing it intentionally or not (realistically the latter, but spitefully she suspected the former), but it made it real hard for a girl to keep her motivation up.

“Okay,” she said, having taken a second to collect her thoughts and push down the bitter thoughts. “Okay. Good. Now, it’s time to talk strategy. Would you say there was any noticeable difference in the time different types of wounds took to heal? If there is, we can tailor the kinds of stuff we get to that. ”

Zarah blinked at her. “You… are not stopping me?”

“Zarah, I can’t stop you. If you’re actually committed to getting to the other side of this thing in one piece, then I’m all for us arming ourselves!”

“Then why…”

“Because I had to make sure you weren’t – aren’t – just going to use this as an excuse to go out in a blaze of glory or some bullshit like that.”

Zarah opened her mouth to protest, but Kihri fixed her with a stare until she closed it.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought. So. Different types of injuries.”

“…not as far as I see, no. Remy did say that Orae was taking unusually long to heal from- to heal, so perhaps gunshots?”

“Hm, alright. Not really helpful for us, but interesting. If it’s a standard rate no matter what, then it might be that bullets do a lot of damage even though it’s quite concentrated. So we just need to figure out a way to do the maximum amount of damage without using a gun, and also hopefully without killing ourselves in the process…”

There. Crisis averted for now. Hopefully it would keep until after they were done dealing with all the crazy bullshit, but, well, hope in one hand and shit in the other.

And she couldn’t even shit.


I

“Excuse me?”

Rinet jumped, spinning around in her chair, barely managing to bite down on a curse. “-god, I’m so sorry, I didn’t hear you come in.” And also you shouldn’t have been able to come in, I distinctly remember locking the door. Her service weapon hung uncomfortably as always below her left armpit, but after the previous night, she took even less comfort in it than she had before.

The new arrival laughed, rubbing the back of her head awkwardly. “Aw, geez, yeah, I do that a lot, sorry. Anyway, you’re Rinet Yso, right?”

Rinet’s heartrate skyrocketed. “Yes,” she managed to say calmly, “I am. Who’s asking?”

“Myra Coleridge.” She stuck out her hand, but then hesitated and pulled it back. “Ah, sorry, not the best idea, maybe. Um, I’ve been a little sick lately.”

The cough she gave was so clearly faked that Rinet was actually a little bit offended. “How can I help you, then?” And why are you here, and how much do you know?

Myra laughed, still awkward. “Oh, right, you’re probably all ‘ahh why is she here’, huh?” She pretended to cower in fear, but gave it up when Rinet failed to react. “…tough crowd, huh?”

“‘Ahh,’” Rinet said, deadpan. “‘Why is she here’.”

“Oh, maybe not!” Myra winked at her. “We’ll make something out of you yet.”

Rinet sighed. “Seriously, tell me why you’re here before I’m forced to evict you from the premises.” And this mortal coil.

‘The premises’ in question were a small office in the centre of Kaila, just far enough from City Hall to be inconvenient but close enough that some pencil-pusher up the chain of command could justify it as ‘on-site’. It was three rooms; the front office where Rinet currently sat, the side office where the actual files were kept, and an existentially-horrifying combination kitchenette and bathroom.

With Gabriel still in the hospital after that mess at the morgue the previous night, she was the only person present – but then again, ‘fully-staffed’ just meant the two of them 90% of the time, what with the Assistant Director’s continued and persistent absence. Rinet was pretty sure that she wasn’t going to be able to make this woman do anything she didn’t want to do – even leaving aside the context clues, she was well over six foot tall, and built like she fought bears for a living. But you had to say it anyway – it was just one of those things you did.

Myra clicked her fingers. “Oh, right, yes, one sec.” She pulled out a phone and snapped off a quick text with one hand, the other holding up a single finger in a ‘wait’ gesture. Even after the phone was back in her pocket, the gesture remained, leaving Rinet stewing for almost a minute while Myra watched the door in anticipation.

Finally, there was the sound of heels, and the door squeaked open once more, to reveal a lean, olive-skinned woman in her late 50s, wearing half-moon pince nez and a dark purple headscarf.

“Dr. Khoura,” Myra greeted her, and Rinet didn’t miss the not-entirely-successful attempt to suppress a salute. It was something she’d learned to watch for very quickly in her line of business. Military, then, or ex-. The question now is, whose? No-one from the Ostran military should be showing up at their tiny, no-name office – there were official unofficial lines of communication for that. So foreign military, probably special operations, or ex-military in a private field. Rinet was hoping the former – a state power can get away with a lot more, but private ones were much more likely to try in the first place.

“Myra,” the doctor replied with a slight nod, before approaching Rinet, who squashed the instinctual urge to stand. “You would be Reserve Agent Yso, I presume?” She offered a hand, which Rinet ignored. “Charmed.”

“Just Yso is fine. ‘Ms.’, if you have to.” She looked back down at her computer and pretended to return to her work, although making progress on her report had been hard enough without two other people standing in front of her. “I’m assuming there’s a reason you’re here?”

Khoura just chuckled at the implied rebuke. “Indeed. I’m given to understand you’re the woman to speak to with regards to… let’s say, things that the Ostran government doesn’t officially know about?”

Rinet sighed, taking off her glasses and placing them on the desk. She had her false eye in today, not the patch – if she was forced to get into another fight, the feeling of it jiggling around inside her socket was going to be the least of her worries. “Dr. Khoura,” she started tiredly, “you know how sometimes, you can say something that is factually true, but also completely practically useless? What you just said was a perfect example of that.”

Khoura seemed more amused than anything else. “Is that so?”

Rinet rubbed at her eye. ”Dr. Khoura, I am twenty years old.” The older woman blinked at that, the first crack in her composure Rinet had seen. “Yes, I am technically who you want to be speaking to, but it’s probably helpful for you to understand that that says very little about me, and a great deal about the state of affairs around here.”

“Oh my god,” Myra whispered, “you’re just a little baby.”

“Myra,” the doctor scolded. “Thank you, Ms. Yso, for keeping us abridged of the… situation, as it were. However, we do have business with the OTA, so nevertheless…” She waved a hand. “May we sit?”

“Knock your- I mean, of course.” Khoura sat primly in one of the two chairs in front of the desk, but despite the ‘we’, Myra remained standing, awkwardly trying to avoid standing in parade rest. “Can I get you anything?” Rinet asked, not bothering to make the question particularly sincere.”

“No, thank you. First things first; I believe I owe you an apology.”

Well, whatever Rinet had been expecting, it hadn’t been that. “…pardon?”

“Well, really, I suppose it’s more due to Mr. Orland, but it’s my understanding that he’s currently not accepting visitors. Besides, it would be undue to drop in on him while he’s off-the-clock, so to speak.” Rinet glanced briefly over at her colleague’s empty desk. “If you would be willing to pass the message on, though, that would be simply grand.

“An apology for what?” Rinet asked slowly.

Khoura’s face shifted into a miniscule grimace, creases forming along well-worn lines. “I am afraid that Remembrance Auclair, the boy you dealt with last night, was… well, he was not my responsibility, exactly. Better to say his presence in your city was my responsible, and everything else that came from that.”

Rinet took a second, processing that. “…Chival?” she asked eventually.

Dr. Khoura inclined her head. “Just so. You’ll excuse us for coming ‘plainclothes’, but walking around in full parade gear would be… counterintuitive.”

“Excused. It’s not like you owe me an explanation, or- anything, really.” If this woman was who Rinet suspected she was – or held the position Rinet suspected she did, then asking her for the time of day would be presumptuous.

“Mm. Except, of course, for that which we all owe to each other, each and every one.”

Myra snorted. “Sorry,” she said sheepishly, as both of them turned to look at her. “You just… reminded me of someone.”

Dr. Khoura’s lips twitched. “Oh, I believe I see what you mean.”

“Is. That. All,” Rinet repeated coldly.

“No,” Khoura said, suppressing her smirk back down to a professionally neutral expression. “No, it is not. This might surprise you to hear, Ms. Yso, but our positions are not dissimilar.”

“You’re right,” Rinet said. “That does surprise me.”

Khoura chuckled. “Nevertheless, it is true. I’m sure you’ve already deduced this much, but I do despise the kind of doublespeak that people in our line of work tend to adopt, so I’ll speak plainly. As the current Grand Commander of the Hollow Bay, I am, in essence, ‘in charge’. Unless one of the Triate decides to visit, of course, but the likelihood of that is… essentially nonexistent.”

Rinet thought furiously back to her briefings. Grand Commander… she’d been right in her earlier estimations, then; in fact, she might still have been too conservative. Rinet wasn’t fooled by her appearance and genial manner – Dr. Khoura could probably atomise her with a thought, and her superiors would probably have to thank her for doing it.

“You must think very highly of me,” she said, “if we’re similar.”

“I said our situations are similar,” Khoura corrected gently. “Which they are. Because while I am technically in command, what I am technically in command of is very very little. Something of a… special arrangement more than a standard promotion, the details of which I won’t bore you with, but the result is that apart from Myra here, I am essentially bereft of a staff, which results in a significantly higher degree of hands-on, face-to-face work than you might expect.”

“Ah yes,” Rinet said dryly. “I’m sure we earn about the same amount as well.”

That got a quiet snicker out of Myra, and Khoura pursed her lips, trying very hard not to look amused.

“She’s got you there,” Myra said, teasing.

“Perhaps I was getting a little enthusiastic,” Khoura admitted. “My main thrust, though, was to reassure you that there is no great crisis that necessitated a Grand Commander being here in person, only the thousand small crises that this line of work consists of.”

Now it was Rinet’s turn to hide her amusement. “I see. And Auclair is one of these small crises?”

“On the upper end of small, yes. The Tenebrate have been getting uppity, and Messer Auclair being sent abroad was a very ‘two birds with one stone’ approach on their part, which unfortunately seems to be succeeding.”

“…I see,” Rinet repeated, tapping a pen on the desk.

The Tenebrate was… the Blackguard? Or were they the government of Jenae? Or both?

The only fact she was confident in was that they were from fairly far away, so she decided to bank on that. “That’s a very long way to throw one stone.”

“Well, they have very good arms,” Khoura said with a smile.

“I just flew in from Jenae,” Myra quipped, “and boy are my arms tired!”

“She’s very lucky she’s good at her job,” Khorua told Rinet conspiratorially.

“I resent that,” Myra interjected. “I’m also very pretty.”

“This is all very nice,” Rinet said acerbically, “but if I wanted to watch middle-aged women flirt with each other I would have stayed with my parents. Auclair?”

Myra at least had the decency to look abashed. Dr. Khoura, on the other hand, merely smirked and adjusted her glasses. “Yes, quite. When this situation came to our attention, I made the executive decision to allow Auclair to pass through the enclosure unhindered, judging it better than the risk of provoking the Tenebrate by detaining him.”

“Which you could have done, yes?” She wasn’t sure what answer she wanted to hear.

“Oh yes,” she agreed. “Though not without considerable effort. He may be, ah…”

“A bit of an idiot?” Rinet suggested.

“Yes, that. He may be that, but as I’m sure you saw, brute force is something of a specialty for the Blackguard. And, something of a weakness of mine, I’m afraid.”

“Doctor-” Myra started, alarmed, but she was cut off by a raised hand.

“The reason I’m telling you this, Ms. Yso, is that while I don’t believe my initial decision was a mistake, it has become clear that there is a need for a degree of… risk management. And as you are, as you say, technically the woman to speak to, I think it would be best if we established a healthy working relationship.” She sighed. “Which would have been easier if I’d done it before causing this little cock-up, but sadly one can’t simply unfuck the pooch after the fact.”

The casual foul language in her posh accent caught Rinet off-guard, and a little chuckle escaped before she could stop it.

“Ah, she does have a sense of humour! I was starting to wonder.”

“Indira,” Myra admonished, “be nice.”

Oh yeah, they’re definitely fucking.

“It was a compliment, I promise. No offense intended, Ms. Yso.”

“Some taken,” she replied honestly. “Look, you’re a Grand fucking Commander – I can’t exactly turn you down here.”

“Ah, but that’s exactly what I don’t want,” Khoura replied. “Please, this will be easier for everyone if we treat each other like equals.”

Even though we aren’t. “Alright, I can do that.” Rinet steepled her fingers in front of her. “Stop fucking around and tell me what you want, or leave me alone so I can get back to work.”

Khoura threw her head back and laughed, full and hearty. “Perfect,” she said, “absolutely perfect.”

“…you’re very easily amused, aren’t you?”

“You have no idea,” Myra muttered.

Khoura wiped a tear from her eye. “You make a valid point, Ms. Yso. So yes, let’s get down to business.”

She gestured, and after a moment of searching, Myra produced a file folder from her bag and handed it over to Rinet.

She opened it up to find a sheaf of heavily redacted files, and a set of long-range photographs of the three strangers from the previous night.

“Let’s start,” Khoura said, “with these three.”


X

“That’s an interesting name,” the guy behind the counter said.

She withheld her sigh. “Yeah. I get that a lot.” There went her hopes of a smooth, businesslike transaction.

“Cassius, huh? Where’s that from?”

“Dunno.”

“Liezin or something?”

Dunno.” Ladies, grant me the patience not to cave this man’s skull in.

Thankfully, he seemed to take the hint, returning to his work, thin fingers clacking away on the keyboard.

Then, of course, he started humming, tuneless and off-key, and she had to repress the urge to strangle him all over again.

Every second Ash spent in the Sandpit reminded her of why she didn’t usually come here. Sure, it was more central than the Gravestones; sure, the facilities were nicer and the work more efficient. Sure, she was significantly less likely to get a venereal disease here (which wasn’t to say that she didn’t take appropriate precautions, she wasn’t stupid, but these things happened).

But by Tiecin’s nuts, was it ever fucking dull.

“So,” the man behind the desk said, “watch any good shows lately?”

Patience was never her strong suit anyway.

“Shut up and finish punching it in,” Ash said calmly, “or I’ll reach through this glass and strangle you to death.”

The man blanched, which was impressive considering his already-pale skin. “That’s- you can’t-”

“Ah, Cassius. Charming as ever, I see.”

Ash painted a fake smile on her face – she recognised those heels. “Selia,” she said, turning around, “so good to see you.”

“Likewise. You’re quite the sight for sore eyes, these days.” Short and waifish, with pale, freckled skin, blonde hair, and a pantsuit that cost more than three of Ash’s takes put together, Selia Warren was the closest thing that passed for an administrator at the Sandpit these days.

She was also Ash’s ex, and what came after that prefix was something they continued to disagree on. Ash said ‘hookup’, Selia continued to insist ‘girlfriend’ was more accurate, but if they could agree on anything, it was that they were most definitely ex.

Which didn’t stop Selia from flirting with her, of course.

“Aaron,” Selia said as she sauntered up next to Ash. “Be a dear, and finish up Mx. Fallow’s paperwork, would you? I’m going to steal her for a few moments.”

“Of course, Ms. Warren.” As Selia led her away by the arm, Ash flashed him a wide smile, and chuckled when he paled.

“Don’t torment the help, Cassius,” Selia muttered. “Do you know how hard it is to get decent employees out here?”

Ash raised an eyebrow at her.

“It’s a figure of speech,” Selia said, annoyed. “No need to be snippy.”

Ash’s visits to the Sandpit didn’t usually involve much more than the path between the docks and the main office, so the clean white corridors Selia led them down were unfamiliar to her.

The occasional windows they passed offered a view out over the rim of the titular pit, the sparse greenery quickly giving way to golden sand as it descended down from the lip, like nature had overflown from a cup and left stained trails down the hillside.

“Congratulations, by the way.” Selia hadn’t removed her arm from Ash’s, and now she gave it a light pat. “Quite a job, from what I hear.”

“Thanks,” Ash said. “Wasn’t that big a deal, though. Just took a while.”

It absolutely had been a big deal. The mark had been one of those irritating paranoiacs, a woman who jumped at shadows and saw conspiracy in every coincidence. Sure, she was right about there being someone following her, but it wasn’t like Ash was the government or some conspiracy. She had a public bounty, for Tsiet’s sake! Of course there was someone following her!

Once upon a time, Ash would’ve shared those thoughts with Selia, listening to the quiet, throaty chuckles as she played up her indignation, the light touch on her arm comfortable and familiar instead of distracting.

“Well,” Selia said, “congratulations regardless. Anything exciting planned for your payday?”

“Not really,” Ash said. “The Sunday could do with a new set of yaw thrusters, and a bit of a tune-up.” She also needed to get her nice arm checked up, an issue with the electronics that was too complex for her to handle on her own, but even when they’d been together Selia had never been entirely comfortable when the topic of her prosthetics came up, despite being very fond of her other scars-

Ash pulled herself away from that line of thought, which wasn’t easy with a hand on her arm and the scent of cardamom in her nose. “Where are we going?” she asked instead.

“Nowhere in particular,” Selia admitted. “I wanted to talk, and to save poor Aaron from your wroth.”

“Talk about what?”

“Ah, just one moment.” They’d reached a wider thoroughfare, the clean white panelling giving way to utilitarian steel and concrete, and Selia indicated one of a few sets of elevators on the other side as they moved through a thin rush of people.

“You haven’t taken up a new contract yet, have you?” she asked, once they were alone inside the steel box.

“No. That was my next stop.”

Selia smiled, a little hint of deviousness behind the calm mask. “Change of plans, then.”

“Don’t,” Ash said coldly, before she could stop herself. “That’s not your decision to make.”

“I- right.” Selia at least had the decency to look abashed. “Sorry. Just as advice, then; I’d hold off on taking a new job for a week or two. And, you know.” She winked. “Stay in the neighbourhood, if you get my drift.”

“I’m not sleeping with you, Selia.”

“Not like that.” The elevator dinged as the doors opened onto a small rooftop garden, and Ash sighed.

“Not doing yourself any favours by bringing us here,” she commented, stepping out into the dry heat, admiring the flowers as they waved in the breeze.

“I wanted somewhere private, Ash, get over yourself. You’re hot but you’re not that hot.”

“Yeah, I am.”

“…damn,” Selia admitted after a second. “Yeah, you really are. You sure you don’t wanna-”

“Nope.”

“Figured. No harm in checking, right?”

“Nope.”

“…nope as in ‘no, there’s no harm’, or nope as in ‘nope, you’re wrong’.”

“Yep.”

Selia sighed. “Yeah, I should have seen that coming.”

“You really should have, yeah. Why shouldn’t I take a job?”

Selia paused, folding her skirt to sit down on the bricks surrounding one of the flowerbeds. Ash did the same opposite here, legs wide, arms folded. The pose drew up the legs of her pants slightly, and she didn’t miss how Selia’s eyes darted away from the exposed fibreglass and metal

“So,” she began, “if anyone asks, you didn’t hear this from me.”

“Hear what?”

“Oh, yes, very amusing. I know you don’t pay attention to world events, but surely you’re aware of the recent kerfluffle between the Chivs and Kallus?”

Ash was aware of it, which definitely was unusual. She didn’t like to concern herself with that sort of stuff – global politics didn’t put bread on the table, after all. But considering that what did put bread on the table relied pretty heavily on the interplay between Chival, Kallus and Sesate, keeping track of it was an unfortunate necessity.

“It’s just a border dispute, isn’t it?” Ash said.

“Not just, no. The Blackguard are sticking their nose where it doesn’t belong again, and for whatever reason, Kallus is covering them for it.”

“Where, exactly, doesn’t their nose belong?”

“Ostra.” Ash’s lack of recognition must have been obvious, because she quickly elaborated. “Tiny, tiny little country, on the other side of the Vaya. Used to be part of the Empire, I think, and the Chival have kept a pretty strict blockade there for the last century or so.”

“And this is relevant to me because…” Truth be told, she already had an inkling of where this was going, but she wanted to hear it from Selia

“I’m getting there, I’m getting there. Official word is that things are being settled behind closed doors, but what I’ve been hearing is that the Chivs are being curiously hands-off with the Blackguard in question.”

“Hm.” Ash tried to call up a set of dusty files from the back of her mind. “Other side of the Vaya… is that still Boneheart?”

Selia shook her head. “He vanished about a year ago. Could’ve been them shuffling him off somewhere quiet, but my bet is that his years of being a prickly little shit caught up with him and he pissed off the wrong person.”

“Sounds about right, yeah. So there’s a new GC?”

“Emphasis on new, yes. Dr. Indira Khoura, formerly of the Research Division.”

Ash raised an eyebrow. “No moniker?”

“Nope,” Selia confirmed. “The whole situation is shady as hell, if I’m being honest. None of my contacts had ever heard of her until she showed up. Apparently, she’s spent the last twenty years doing archeological work out in the middle of bumfuck nowhere, and then is suddenly the newest Grand Commander of the Chival?”

“Could have been a cover,” Ash pointed out.

“If it was, it’s the best cover I’ve ever seen. This woman has published more papers than I’ve ever read.”

“So she’s being set up to fail.”

“Could be,” Selia allowed. “Probably. Almost definitely. But there’s a little part of my brain that wonders if it’s… almost too obvious. They normally at least try to make it look plausible from the outside, and a command staff with only three people is anything but plausible. Personally, I think it’s a trap – whoever this Khoura is, they expect her to be able to handle whatever heat comes her way, and making her seem vulnerable would draw a whole bunch of folks out of the woodwork.”

“One hell of an asset they’re spending on this, if that’s true. That’s not a card you can play twice.”

“Mm-hmm. But that’s all secondary to the main point, which is that she has a command staff of only three people. And no matter what kind of game you’re running, you can’t really do your day-to-day with that and some grunts.”

Ash could follow the train of thought to its conclusion. “You want me to make myself available.”

Selia winked. “I always knew there was a brain under all that muscle. I know, it’s the Chivs, but think about it, Ash. You know how well they pay, and you’d be establishing a working relationship with a Grand Commander.

If she contracts me,” Ash countered. “If she contracts anyone, period.”

Selia waved a hand dismissively. “Come on, when have I been wrong about something like this?”

“Tayeth. Shan Bai. Mulaney. Cervetz M-”

“Alright, fine, I get it, geez. And in my defense, only one of those was actually my fault.”

“How is giving me the wrong name three separate times not your fault?”

Selia rubbed her forehead. “…only two of those were actually my fault, then. Listen, it’s up to you, but this could be big, Ash. World stage big.”

“You said that about Shan Bai.”

“And I was right, wasn’t I? Just, you know… not for you.

Ash sighed. “I’ll think about it. Was that all?”

Selia pursed her lips. “Yeah,” she said eventually, “that was it. And remember-”

“I didn’t hear it from you,” Ash finished, standing up. “I know.” She stretched, and it’d be a lie if she said there wasn’t something satisfying the way Selia’s breath caught in her throat.

“Yes, that’s you,” she said, a little flustered. “Always professional.” She summoned the lift, and they stood in silence as it whirred up to them.

“Do you-” Selia started as they descended. “Do you ever miss it? …us?”

No. “Sometimes.” Selia had never quite gotten what ‘aromantic’ actually meant, and at this point, Ash just found it easier to lie to her.

“…yeah.” The door dinged, and Selia was first out the door. “You know the way back, surely,” she said over her shoulder, not looking back as she walked away.

“I’ll figure it out,” Ash said casually. “Bye, Selia.”

The words were quiet, almost inaudible. “…goodbye, Ash.”

Ash watched her go, leaning back against the wall and pulling out a pack of gum.

Ostra, huh? Probably going to need a map, maybe a phrasebook…

She glanced down at her faded tanktop and cargo pants.

and some nicer clothes, she admitted.

Wouldn’t want to make a bad first impression with a Grand Commander, after all.

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